The fifth generation (5G) of wireless technology provides mobile internet speeds 10 times faster and will connect billions of new devices to the internet that will in turn help transform a wide range of services and industries. It is estimated that the total economic impact from 5G in India can exceed $1 trillion by 2035.
India is considered a prized market for global 5G manufacturers — Ericsson of Sweden, Nokia of Finland, Samsung of South Korea, and Huawei and ZTE of China. Considering the enormous size of the global 5G market, an economy’s deep dependency on modern telecom infrastructure, and national security imperatives, some countries have expressed concerns about Chinese companies, and the US has gone to the extent of banning Huawei and setting up a “5G Rivalry”.
As the “5G Rivalry” plays out and draws other countries into it, India needs to take a long-term view and place its interest front and centre. India’s interests are threefold.
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First, bring the full benefits of 5G to the people and economy at the lowest cost and in the shortest time possible. It is in India’s benefit to not exclude any players from the small set of 5G equipment vendors. It is to our advantage to keep competition high, telecom equipment pricing low, and access to the full range of technology options open.
Second, minimise any security risks to critical telecom infrastructure. To do this, the nation should perform an integrated threat assessment that provides a “common threat perception picture” — this is best done by a multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary (private-sector led) task force. This assessment should be followed by a realistic risk mitigation programme orchestrated by an empowered and accountable institution such as the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (NCIIPC).
India has gained solid experience from 3G and 4G deployments that will be useful in 5G. However, all stakeholders will have to augment existing structures and capacities for testing, audits and equipment validation to cover the new risks from billions of new devices connecting to the 5G network. India can also consider forming a techno-diplomatic alliance with countries at risk from the same telecom products and create an information sharing and competency building agreement with them — Russia, Japan, France, and Germany are some of the potential partner countries.
For extremely sensitive applications or geographical concerns, of course the government always has a last-resort choice to establish “no-go” zones for specific equipment on a case-by-case basis. It is important to note that as much of the 5G investments and implementation in India will be by private entities, balancing their short to medium term corporate objectives with long-term national concerns around cyber-security and infrastructure protection will require policies and a collaborative approach to implement these policies.
Third, maximise India’s opportunities for value creation from the global 5G revolution. India has limited intellectual property in 5G technologies and is largely going to be a buyer of this technology. However, the size of the Indian market and our strengths in services and software create some opportunities for symmetric dependencies and value creation. For example, global deployments of 5G are expected to continue over the next decade and will require skilled labour to design, install, and monitor these networks.
The government should encourage capacity building in Indian companies for “5G deployment services” such that Indian talent can be used across the world. For vendors winning large 5G contracts in India, preferential agreements with Indian software companies could be considered. Additionally, setting up “use-case validation and development centres” should be incentivised to develop new applications of 5G that are most relevant to India’s social development such as health, education, agriculture, transportation and Water. These solutions can also be exported.
Telecom technology generations evolve in decade time-frames. It will take foresight and strong execution of a national plan to make India a relevant player in the next evolution of telecom technology.
If India plays this situation right and plays to win, we can not only bring timely and affordable 5G to India, but do it with due consideration to our security concerns and even get an upside from our engagement with the global 5G revolution.
Kanvinde is with the Pune International Centre, Bambawale, a former Indian ambassador to China and Pakistan, is also with PIC